Heiruspecs - A Tiger Dancing
A gripe many people have towards rap/hip hop music is that the artistic qualities of it come primarily from the vocals. Some artists, like RJD2 and DJ Shadow, focus on production and are even renowned for their beats, backgrounds, and sampling abilities, but these fall into a niche often labeled as sampled hip hop that spills a lot into trip hop, thus dissolving its importance in being hip hop with a non-vocal emphasis. It seems that to be a rap group but not be vocal-centric is a rare occurrence, almost an exception to the rap genre, and is found in bands like Jedi Mind Tricks or Deltron3030, where vocals and sampling are even. However, take a step beyond sampling and think of bands that provide live instrumentation in the background instead of just sampling. The Roots and Mos Def seem like fitting examples, and the lyricists in those bands are bolstered by an actual band in the background. The Roots are popular for their band, and their bassist even moved over to Incubus when Dirk Lance left the band. Mos Def is so on par with his band that his most recent album actually made a shift toward weird futurock that had vocals sit second chair to instrumentals. And then, there's Heiruspecs. Heiruspecs is a 5-piece band from St. Paul Minnesota, and they are actually are a "band," including live bass, keyboards, guitar, and drums. And unlike the now instrumental centered Mos Def or The Roots, Heiruspecs are sparse and pensive like the expected rap of yesteryear, but do this through live instrumentation and an equal value placed on vocals and instrumentals, leaving their music jazzy and coy versus vocally bombastic or instrumentally dense. Their sound is really a 50-50 equilibrium that hip hop has been grappling with since it was birthed from r&b and funk.
A Tiger Dancing
, Heiruspecs' most recent LP, feels like an exhibition of that equilibrium. To explain, look at the album structure as a whole. It starts off with a few more lyrically aggressive songs that embody the accusatory style that rappers often use to insult competition in freestyle battles. You hear "What's the difference between me and you? / About 32 bucks, a haircut, and some shoes" and other such point-the-finger lyrics typical of the vocal-only rap. However, underneath that there's a lot of cool bass-work, keyboard lines, and interesting drumming. Also, the song structure is interesting as Heiruspecs don't repeat instrumental verses verbatim by including cool swell notes on guitar (see the second verse of "Two Fold") or a chromatic keyboard solo (see the second verse of "5ives"). Then as the album moves on, the songs shift a little bit. There's a strip of songs that are incredibly dark and subdued, with a slightly stronger focus on production and atmosphere (see the delightfully unexpected 6/8 time signature of "32 months") but there too, as if roles were reversed, the rapping produces interesting variations to keep the feel fresh (see the interjected beatboxing on "Swearsong"). After these two initial sections the CD mashes the two emphases together to produce a true 50-50 blend for the rest of the album. So, just by moving through the album linearly one gets a sense of highs and lows with both vocals and instrumentals, but overall there's an emphasis on having, well, no emphasis as the songs seamlessly produce lyrical and instrumental feats against one another. It's blend that makes the album feel so original among the abundance of one-dimensional hip hop and rap albums. It's an album that really makes one wonder if it better fits under the genre of the vocal-centric rap or the production-central hip hop.
Even beyond the aesthetic and philosophy of the music, and as hinted in the descriptions in the preceding paragraph, the specifics and technicalities of this album are tight as well. The bass is smooth and flows better than any vocals I've ever heard. The keyboard is jazzy and gives the songs a more educated flavor among the more archetypal drum and bass. The occasional guitar has a lot of unique qualities like volume swells that are more often found in post-hardcore and post-rock than rap, and also the cool little solos that appear as slow, quiet background leads. The drumming is also great as it runs through a lot of different modes. It can be incredibly silky and calm like on the plodding "32 Months" only to imitate a breakbeat on the next track "Swearsong." There are even a lot of rock-like beats that seem to come from the band's ability to be incredibly dynamic with their equal-footing. Why not bring rock and R&B into the mix if one can so harmoniously join other genres? Even the sampled or computer generated aspects of the album, which I sort of decried by implication in the first paragraph are excellent as well. The effects on "Heartsprings" that turns the keyboard (I think it's the keyboard) into a ghostly whine in the background is awesome and perfectly ambient for that chill song. All of the tones on this album are great, most of them being smooth and creamy, suggesting the smooth equilibrium between genres, which fits the overall mood really well. Lyrically this album is also great. There's an erudite feel to the whole CD. The lyrics come from a few echelons of intelligence and education above most other rappers, leaving this album up there with some of Del tha Funkee Homosapien's as most intelligent. The tone can be wistful, accusatory, strong, or passionate, sometimes all in the same song (see "5ives"). Also, the actual flow is great. It stutters when the snare hits, and rolls with the cymbals are lightly tapped showing a supreme tightness and sync with the instrumental aspects of the album. The single most impressive lyrical and vocal performance on the album comes from the opening soliloquy of "Lie to Me," whose alliteration, consonation, and rhyme tastefully saturates the song with rhetoric that isn't found much elsewhere on the album (yes they don't rhyme every line either). My favorite moment on that song is featured below:
Originally Posted by Lie to Me
In my hand I hold the soul of a poet
Hoping to throw it over the moat of Moet, and boats full of heads with no necks
Who protest against my inappropriate openness
Standing at the edge of this precipice, staring at nothingness, just
Overall, while I have made my infatuation with this album and its whole premise pretty apparent, there are some downsides. As a whole it drags a little bit because they spend the whole album working with the same demure, subdued flavor. It doesn't have that in your face jangle and flare of most rap albums or the microscopic detail of sampled hip hop, so overall, the tone will become homogeneous at a casual listen, making repeated listens tedious. This album is meant to be completely engaging from the vocals to the guitar, from the hip hop, to the rap, etc because Heiruspecs draws from influences all over the map to create their own unique flavor. My recommendation: pay attention or else you'll get washed away in their unbreakable smoothness.
Recommended Tracks: Two Fold, 5ives, 32 Strong, Swearsong, Heartsprings, Lie to Me, Marching Orders